Competition is healthiest option, no really

Funds should follow students. Steven Schwartz outlines what he feels should be the next big thing in reform

February 10, 2006

When I was a young academic, I received an invitation to speak at what Australian schools call “speech night”. This is the night that secondary students matriculate and prizes are awarded. The school that invited me happened to be in another city, quite a distance from my home.

Fortunately, the offer included airfare and accommodation. I was pretty pleased with myself. The school officials were so interested in what I had to say that they were willing to pay my travel and accommodation expenses.

I was determined to give my hosts their money’s worth, so I really worked on that speech. I polished every sentence and practised it until I was word perfect. The big day came and I delivered the speech and I thought it went well. The local newspaper even sent a journalist and the next day my remarks were quoted in the town’s newspaper.

On the way home, I noticed that the businessman seated next to me on the plane was browsing through the local newspaper. I could see that he was reading about my speech. I couldn’t wait to tell him that I was the one in the article. I waited and, just as he finished, he turned to me, pointed at the paper, and said: “Did you see this article?” Here was my chance to brag. But before I could say anything he continued: “What a load of rubbish these academics talk.”

I am sure that this was a worthwhile lesson for a young academic.

Nevertheless, to the disappointment of some, I was not deterred. I kept talking and writing, and here I go again.

I keep going because, as the Americans say, I have an agenda. I am sure that the world would be a better place if everyone with the ability and the desire could receive an education. The Blair Government has not wavered from the policy of widening participation, nor should it. University students do not just learn from professors and books; they also learn from one another. Sometimes, the most important lessons that students learn - communication skills, teamwork, fair play - come from mixing with other students. Reaching out to students from non-traditional backgrounds, or to those whose talent has not yet been given a chance to develop, is not only morally right, it is educationally beneficial as well.

Widening participation is the right policy but it can be costly. If we are to reach out to more students, we will need more resources. This brings me to the second part of my agenda, which is a belief in markets, competition and choice. The current quota system that is used to determine enrolments ensures that every university has a supply of students irrespective of its performance or student preference. This arrangement simply entrenches mediocrity. Why should institutions improve if they can survive without changing? Real improvement requires competition. At the very least, universities need to be able to adjust their supply of student places to meet demand. Replacing quotas with a system in which funds follow students will force universities to compete for every student pound they receive.

This competition will do more to lift quality in higher education than any number of quality audits.

Choice is essential at every level of education. Middle-class parents already have a choice of schools. To ensure that their children attend the best schools, middle-class parents can move to a better school’s catchment area or they can send their children to private schools. Working-class parents lack the same consumer power.JThey are stuck with whatever school happens to be nearby. There is a basic inequality here. Working-class parents deserve the same choices in education that middle-class families take for granted. The best way to give them this power is to have school funds follow the students. Let schools compete for student funding and the economic clockwork will maximise quality for all families.

It is true that many British university buildings could use a good coat of paint and staff salaries are too low, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with British higher education. On whatever measure you care to use - research productivity, international student demand, Nobel prizes, enterprise activity and just about anything else you can think of - UK and US universities lead the world.

But our universities could be even better. At the top end, British higher education is widely respected and it has high expectations of itself. What we need is a similar quality throughout the system. Competitive student funding is the next big reform. It will ensure that UK higher education remains at the top of the world’s league tables.

Steven Schwartz was vice-chancellor of Brunel University from 2002 to 2006.

He is currently vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney.

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